Not long after President Donald Trump pondered the potential effectiveness of disinfectant as a cure for COVID-19 during a press briefing last week, a woman sent a message to Florida's Poison Control Centers on social media.
"That one was particularly concerning," says Dr. Wendy Stephan, a health education coordinator and epidemiologist for Florida Poison Information Center - Miami. "She was asking if, for a child, it was better to inject or ingest."
Stephan says she had never become emotional at work before.
"But that was too much," she says. "I was fearful for people."
Stephan says it's still too soon to know how much of an impact the president's musings will have on the state's poison control line. But from April 23 — the day of the press briefing — to April 27, Stephan says, the center received 17 calls and multiple emails and social media messages from people around the state asking how to safely consume cleaning products to treat COVID-19.
"We've received inquiries about how to ingest it safely," Stephan says. "They're saying, 'Which is the better product? What product do you guys recommend?' We've been fielding those questions and very clearly saying we do not want anyone ingesting or injecting products."
Stephan says 17 might not seem like many people, but the fact that anyone is considering ingesting household products in an effort to rid themselves of a virus is significant. "People are thinking about it," she says.
Calls to the poison control hotline have been rising since the beginning of the pandemic. More people cleaning and disinfecting their homes means more exposure to bleach and disinfectant. People might feel respiratory symptoms from inhaling fumes or develop skin irritation from using household chemicals.
"So we already started with an increased number of calls," says Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein, medical director of Florida's Poison Control Centers and a Jackson Memorial Hospital emergency physician and toxicologist. "And then the president made his speech the other day where he asked whether this would be an appropriate way to treat it. And we knew we would get an increased number of calls after that happened."
Trump walked back his remarks at a press briefing April 24.
"I was asking a very sarcastic question to the reporters in the room about disinfectant on the inside," he said. "But it does kill it, and it would kill it on the hands, and that would make things much better. That was done in the form of a sarcastic question to the reporters."
According to NPR, New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recorded 30 cases to its poison control center in an 18-hour period following Trump's comments. The cases included nine inquiries about exposure to Lysol, ten cases about bleach, and 11 cases about exposure to other cleaners.
Yesterday, Trump said he "can't imagine why" there's been an increase in cases of improper use of disinfectants.
Bernstein, Florida's Poison Control Centers' medical director, says as irresponsible as Trump's words were, he doesn't believe the president was really suggesting that people inject or ingest disinfectants to kill the virus.
"I think he was asking about it to see if somebody thought it would work," Bernstein says. "But he really should know that his followers are the type to take everything he says literally."
Data from the Florida Poison Information Center shows that exposure to household cleaning products — which includes bleach, laundry detergent, disinfectants, and drain, oven, and bathroom cleaners — increased 41 percent compared to this time last year. Bleach exposures increased by 46 percent this year, and disinfectant exposures increased 135 percent.
Stephan says when it comes to exposure, most people are reporting accidents such as unintentional ingestion. But the center's staffers are worried about people using toxic substances to self-harm or self-medicate. The belief that drinking, injecting, or inhaling disinfectant or similar products can cure an illness such as COVID-19 is false. The body, unlike a kitchen counter or a doorknob, is tremendously porous.
"Germs are nicely nestled inside the body," Stephan says. "They know how to hide. They're not available to be killed on a surface. It's a logical fallacy that is just too simplistic to be useful."
Though disinfectants can kill viruses on surfaces, they also have "direct toxicity" against the body's cells, Bernstein says.
"The virus is inside your cells, for the most part," he says. "Trump had hypothesized that you can kill the virus because disinfectant works on surfaces. The problem is that the virus, once it's in your body, incorporates itself into your cells. Even if there were a way to sterilize the outside of your cells, you can't get to the virus without killing the cell."
Ingesting bleach, rubbing alcohol, disinfectants, or other household cleaners has dangerous and potentially fatal consequences.
"When you inhale them, it can affect the lungs and do much more injury to the lungs than the virus would have in the first place," Bernstein says.
Ingesting these products can cause injury to the esophagus or the stomach. Organ and tissue damage are possible if household products are consumed in large doses. And injecting products into your veins can cause sepsis, a potentially fatal condition in which the body becomes overwhelmed by an infection and essentially attacks itself.
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"Disinfectants are not sterile compounds," Bernstein says. "They weren't made to be injected in the veins. Even if you survive the toxic effect of the substance itself, because they're not sterile products, you run the risk of getting bacterial infections."
Bernstein says trying to kill a virus inside your body with a disinfectant is akin to drinking insecticide because you found ants on your cookies.
"I know there's a narrative of 'no one would really do this,' but we do see people who, because they're frightened, might be inclined to try something," Stephan says. "These products are very available in our homes, and that's the worry for us. I'm glad we're getting the questions because it gives us an opportunity to say we don't want people doing this. I don't want to discourage people from calling. The services are confidential and free. We're not into judgment here at Poison Control."
The number for the national poison control hotline is 800-222-1222.